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Embodiment: Signs of Life in the Self

Richard L. Lanigan
Outstanding Scholar of the University
Professor, Graduate Faculty
Editor, The American Journal of Semiotics
Speech Communication Dept.
Southern Illinois University
Carbondale, IL 62901-6605, USA
Tel: [001] (618) 453-1894 or 2291
Fax: [0011 (618) 453-2812

[A Paper Presented at the Symposium on "Musement to Meaning: Body and Mind" at the Twentieth Annual Meeting of the SEMIOTIC SOCIETY OF AMERICA. San Antonio, Texas, USA. 20 October 1995.]

The problematic of the body and the mind is very old, being dramatized for the first time in Plato's dialogue the Sophist (Lanigan 1988: 223-245). The modern recollection of the problem in Descartes' philosophy grounds a contemporary perspective in French philosophy and the human sciences. The perspective is announced and explored in the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty where perception is the vehicle of analysis. Merleau-Ponty investigates the eidetic and empirical mechanism of the body and mind to show that the Cartesian split cannot be accepted. Rather, a unified view of embodiment must replace the dichotomy between body and mind (Lanigan 1972 [1991]: 130-133). Embodiment is a matter of perception that discovers expression; embodiment is a preconscious being of the person that is the lived-comportment prior to a consciousness that has experiences (Henstenberg 1963: 165-200).

1. The Horizons of Embodiment.

The principal exemplar of embodiment is the experience of being consciousness, in contradistinction to the other embodied possibilities we know as the unconscious ( la Freud), the nonconscious habitus ( la Bourdieu), or the exclusion of consciousness that is the ir-conscious epistm or simply being not conscious ( la Foucault; equivalent to the hexis of Bourdieu and the chord of Kristeva). Thus in the dynamics of the preconscious embodiment of the person, there is an order of analysis moving from the experienced to the experiencing to the experiencer which in human comportment is the semiosis of perception constituting the expression of the person. The order of analysis constitutes a semiotic human being who embodies a code and a context, in Jakobson's sense of these elements of communication. As Lotman (1990) and Wilden (1.987) so brilliantly explicate the thematic of the experience of consciousness as the order of analysis, embodiment in the public domain is culture per se.

Yet, there is a reflexive semiotic turn in Merleau-Ponty's work. Attacking and correcting the Saussurian dichotomy of the signifier and the signified, Merleau-Ponty (1960 [1964]: 90) argues that the sign(s) is conjunctive and that the signifier and signified are an embodied phenomenon when he says "The significative intention gives itself a body and knows itself by looking for an equivalent in the system of available significations represented by the language I speak and the whole of the writings and culture I inherit."

The result of this phenomenological analysis of semiosis is to distinguish the phenomenological fact that the order of analysis reverses the order of experience in consciousness. This is to say, the order of experience is the experiencer who is experiencing the experienced which in human comportment is the semiosis of the person constituting the expression of the perception. The order of experience is a phenomenological human becoming that embodies a message and a contact, in Jakobson's sense of these communicative elements. In short, Merleau-Ponty discovers a semiotic explication of perception that is parallel to the phenomenological ontology offered by C. S. Peirce (1902 [193158]: 2.92) where Firstness, Secondness, and Thirdness are knowable by a phenomenon of embodiment that he calls the Interpretant. In Peirce's (1897 [1931-58]: 2.228) well know definition:

A sign, or representamen, is something which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity. It addresses somebody, that is, creates in the mind of that person an equivalent sign, or perhaps a more developed sign. That sign which it creates I call the interpretant of the first sign. The sign stands for something, its object. It stands for that object, not in all respects, but in reference to a sort of idea, which I have sometimes called the ground of the representamen.

In a context similar to that of Peirce, it is also important to note that Merleau-Ponty's work on perception led him to suggest that perception and expression were a conjunction such that both were part of the signs process. Hence, the conjunctive signifier/signified process could operate reversibly whereby expression/perception could become perception/expression and vice versa which is virtually Peirce's notion of representamen and interpretant. This reversibility in Merleau-Ponty's model is also precisely Jakobson's (1960a,b, 1972) poetic function for the message constrained by the metalinguistic function of the code. It is just this mechanism of reversibility where the orders of (1) analysis and (2) experience join together to constitute the phenomenon of human embodiment. As Merleau-Ponty (1960 [1964]: 94) so vividly notes: "This subject which experiences itself as constituted at the moment it functions as constituting is my body." Put more explicitly, Merleau-Ponty argues that "to the extent that what I say has meaning, I am a different 'other' for myself when I am speaking; and to the extent that I understand, I no longer know who is speaking and who is listening" (p. 97). In short, embodiment is the conjunction of the mind and body as Firstness, Secondness, and Thirdness.

Recall that for Peirce (1903a [1931-58]: 1.531), "A Firstness is exemplified in every quality of a total feeling. It is perfectly simple and without parts; and everything has its quality." Likewise Peirce (1.532) says, "As to Secondness, I have said that our only direct knowledge of it is in willing and in the experience of a perception." Peirce adds, "Moreover, he who wills is conscious of doing so, in the sense of representing to himself that he does so. But representation is precisely genuine Thirdness." Thus Peirce concludes one consequence of embodiment with which Merleau-Ponty would be in complete agreement, namely, that "we may say with some approach to accuracy that the general Firstness of all true Secondness is existence . . . . " Simply put, embodiment is a semiotic function in which body and mind are perceptive and expressive of one another. Often incorrectly referred to as a "symbolic" function by rationalist thinkers or a "linguistic" function by idealists, the conscious experience of embodiment is a phenomenological semiotic inasmuch as the human body is the ground for mind. Yet, the experienced body is first an act of consciousness arising out of the preconsciousness of the lived-body. This reflexive discovery of the Self as a sign is the essence of the thinking that finds coincidence in the work of both Merleau-Ponty and Peirce.

2. The Lived-Body as Sign in Merleau-Ponty.

The body-lived (corps vcu) as the modality of experience and, in particular, the lived-body (corps propre) as the modality of consciousness constitute the phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty's existential analysis of the person. The existential lived-body is the core (Husserl's term) of a human being situated in the field (Husserl's term) of society and surrounded by the horizon (Husserl's term) of culture for the body-lived. Merleau-Ponty's (1945 [1981]) analysis of the body in these two modalities constitute a major part of his magnum opus, Phe'nome'nologie de la perception. In part one, called Le Corps [The Body], of this book, there are six chapters devoted to the following categories of phenomenological analysis: (1) The Body as Object and Mechanistic Physiology; (2) The Experience of the Body and Classical Psychology; (3) The Spatiality of the Lived-Body and Its Motility; (4) The Synthesis of the Lived Body; (5) The Body as Sexual Being; and, (6) The Body as Expression and Speaking. Let me cite Merleau-Ponty's (1945 [1981]: 198) own summary of his analysis in these extensive chapters:

There are two senses, and two only, of the word 'exist': one exists as a thing or else one exists as a consciousness. The experience of the lived-body, on the other hand, reveals to us an ambiguous mode of existing. If I try to think of it as a cluster of third person processes--'sight', 'motility', 'sexuality'--I observe that these 'functions' cannot be interrelated, and related to the external world, by causal connections, they are all obscurely drawn together and mutually implied in a unique drama. Therefore the body is not an object. For the same reason, my awareness of it is not a thought, that is to say, I cannot take it to pieces and reform it to make a clear idea. Its unity is always implicit and vague. It is always something other than what it is, always sexuality and at the same time freedom, rooted in nature at the very moment when it is transformed by cultural influences, never hermetically sealed and never left behind. Whether it is a question of another's body or my own, I have no means of knowing the human body other than that of living it, which means taking up on my own account the drama which is being played out in it, and losing myself in it. I am my body, at least wholly to the extent that i possess experience, and yet at the same time my body is as it were a 'natural' subject, a provisional sketch of my whole being.

Thus for Merleau-Ponty (1945 [1981]), "the theory of the body schema is, implicitly, a theory of perception" (p. 206) in which "our own body is in the world as the heart is in the organism: it keeps the visible spectacle constantly alive, it breathes life into it and sustains it inwardly, and with it forms a system" (203).

The system of the body for Merleau-Ponty consists of the phenomenological description, reduction, and interpretation of the lived-body, of conscious experience (Lanigan 1995a, 1995b). Briefly put, Merleau-Ponty finds the problematic of the lived-body to exist in (1) the description of the lived-body as motility, the capacity to be in space; in (2) the reduction of the lived-body as sexuality, the capacity to be in time; and, in (3) the interpretation of the livedbody as expression, the capacity to be in speaking (parole parlante).

In turn, Merleau-Ponty finds the thematic of the lived-body to exist in (1) the description of the radical cogito that replaces the Cartesian "I think, therefore I am" with the radical discourse of the Self which is "I am, therefore I am able to/I can", in (2) the reduction of temporality as the ek-stase ( la Heidegger) of transcendence between the Self and the World in which I have "this body" (p. 431); and, in (3) the interpretation of freedom in which "we choose our world and the world chooses us" (p. 454) as the condition of e'tre-au-monde [being-in-the-world].

Let me close my all to brief presentation of Merleau-Ponty phenomenological orientation to the lived-body by quoting the last line of the Phenomenology of Perception which points to semiosis and to Peirce: "Man is but a network of relationships, and these alone matter to him" (p. 456). The cultural extension of this ontological communication is noted especially in the conjunction of semiotics and communicology as human sciences (Leeds-Hurwitz 1993).

3. The Person as Sign in Peirce.

As a transition from Merleau-Ponty to Peirce, I should like to begin with Peirce's notion of phenomenology. Peirce (1903b [1931-58]: 5.122) says that "Phenomenology treats of the universal Qualities of Phenomena in their immediate phenomenal character, in themselves as phenomena. It, thus, treats of Phenomena in their Firstness." The influence of Edmund Husserl's slogan "Zu den Sachen selbst" [Back to the Things Themselves!] is obvious in this definition. However what is not so obvious is the existential turn that Peirce takes, a turn that is much like that of Merleau-Ponty (1945 [1981]: 198) who says: "The problem of the world, and to begin with, that of one's lived-body, consists in the fact that it is all there [Heidegger's Dasein ]."

It comes as no surprise, then, when Peirce explains consciousness by saying that it is embodied in just the way that Merleau-Ponty explains the embodiment of human discourse. Peirce (1868 [1931-58]: 5.314) explains that

It is that the word or sign which man uses is the man himself. For, as the fact that every thought is a sign, taken in conjunction with the fact that life is a chain of thought, proves that man is a sign; so, that every thought is an external sign, proves that man is an external sign. That is to say, the man and the external sign are identical, in the same sense in which the words homo and man are identical. Thus my language is the sum total of myself; for the man is the thought.

Merleau-Ponty's (1945 [1981]: 184) version of this point is more succinct, he says simply that "The spoken word is a gesture, and its meaning a world."

I should now like to illustrate in a pragmatic way the concept of embodiment advanced by both Merleau-Ponty and Peirce. Such an illustration allows us to apply empirically what we know to be true eidetically. First, I should like to briefly discuss the applied use of embodiment made by Eric Erikson (1963) in his descriptions of human cognitive, affective, and conative development in the child's communication environment of play. Second, I would like to take note of the embodiment applications to communication and the diagnosis of stressed embodiment that occur first in the work of Jiirgen Ruesch (1950 [1972]) and then in the coauthored work of Ruesch and Gregory Bateson (1951 [19871).

Erikson is the author of a well know phenomenological approach to the study of human development that has explicit descriptive, reductive, and interpretive explications ranging from infancy to adulthood. As an orientation to his model of human development, Erikson (1963: 220-221) suggests that there are three general embodied horizons of communicative encounter that count as play in the child, although the orientations are easily applicable to adults:

(1) autocosmic: the child's play begins with and centers on its own body;

(2) microspheric: the small world of manageable toys; and

(3) macrospheric: the sharing of play with others, first in parallel fashion and then in concert.

These domains of embodiment know as play are "autotherapeutic" in the "sense that it is a rudimentary form of the adult capacity to create models andexperiment with alternative behaviors without committing oneself to those behaviors" (Anderson and Carter 1990: 208). Thus, while Erikson's research is concerned with the generally positive aspects of healthy human embodiment, there is a negative side as well where embodiment is the sign of disease.

Jiirgen Ruesch was the pioneer in bringing embodiment as communication into the applied arena of the human sciences. While he has made an enormous corpus of research materials available to us, I am going to briefly discuss only his classic article on vasopastic conditions. Vasopastic "disease" is simply the negative manifestation of embodiment. This is to say a vasospasm occurs, which means in plain English that the flow of blood to a part of the body has been severely restricted. The ma or result is vasomotor instability in which the function of a muscle (motor) function is impaired causing a sympathetic stimulation, e.g., "agonizing or burning pain, rubor, pallor, swelling, sweating, and often mottled or cystic atrophy of the bone" (Ruesch 1950 [1972]: 615). While positivist medicine typically attributes this symptomatology to "psychosomatic" causes which are indeterminate, Ruesch suggests that signs of embodiment are quite clear and have their motivation in the communication of embodiment. This is to say, motivation is the signified stress of the inside body, or mind, constituting the signifier symptom of the outside body, or organism, as a "new" embodiment [= disease] that replaces the previous embodiment health].

Ruesch (1950 [1972]: 614) suggests the idea that semiotic phenomenology of embodiment is best understood through the perception and expression of comportment that we call communication. He suggests that

The reader may look with a jaundiced eye upon the proposition that bodily disease may be related in some way to problems of communication. But such is the hypothesis of the authors:

(a) That the body as a whole can be looked upon as an instrument of communication: receiving, evaluating and transmitting messages. The origin and destination of such messages may be located within the organism itself or are to be found outside.

(b) That when disease afflicts the organism, the instrument of communication is also affected.

(c) That alteration or arrested development of the functions of communication may eventually disrupt bodily mechanism and result in disease.

The hypothesis outlined above is based upon the postulate that all functions of man are an expression of his need for homeostasis. Therefore to the long series of bodily mechanisms already described, the intrapsychic, the interpersonal, and the wider social or cultural processes have to be added, if man is to be understood in his entirety.

Ruesch studied 12 women and 9 men with ages ranging from 25 to 70 years. The group as a whole had undergone 38 major operations defined as procedures requiring inhalation of anesthesia or the opening of one of the three major body cavities. Most of the patients mentioned, as part of their case histories, significant problems with human interaction and social process. It became increasing clear to Ruesch that the negative embodiment was manifest in a number of communication factors in the patient's comportment:

[1] Their mastery of verbal expression and of gestures is inadequate; an inability to express feelings and thoughts in verbal terms (p. 625)

[2] Fantasy was not used as a safety device to absorb frustrations (p. 625).

[3] Patients possessed a poor system of codification; their small scale model of the world was inadequate; their ability to express what happened in their psyche was likewise inadequate (p. 625).

[4] In these patients interpersonal communication was replaced by intrapsychic communication (p. 626).

[5] Therefore: [a] patients lacked the ability to check and counter-check messages (p. 626); [b] patients believed bodily expressions and organ language were the primary system of communication (p.627); and [c] patients were not able to consider the double meaning that any communication action can have [i.e., verbal to non-verbal ratio of meaning interpretation] (p. 627).

These signifier behaviors have their source, according to Ruesch (pp. 629-630) in the "early life" of the patients which was uniformly characterized by

1. Restricted in movement in space, in spite of the fact that they lived in suburban or rural communities.

2. Restricted in social mobility though their intellectual endowment would have sufficed for them to make good.

3. Restricted in self-expression and held to external norms of conduct.

4. Not encouraged to tackle specific tasks but discouraged from initiative.

5. The general restrictions and prohibitions in the sphere of action could not be compensated for by withdrawal into the world of thought or feeling.

In short, Ruesch is suggesting to us that the communication code imposed on the body becomes embodied as the message of the body. Where the code is dysfunctional the inevitable communicative outcome is a dysfunctional message. The normal mind as code and the normal body as message reverse themselves into the abnormal mind as code and the abnormal body as message. This is to say, the person as an embodied consciousness escapes confinement by becoming re-embodied in another time (solitary mind) and another place (body per se). The semiotic phenomenology of this new existence is the inability to express or perceive oneself in feelings, thoughts, or values, i.e. the lived-body becoming the body-lived when communication is no longer expression and perception, but merely idle talk in Heidegger's phrase. Edward Sapir (1931) has also suggested that a version of idle talk may occur when technology allows us to be understood by too many people. That is, expression and perception are no longer identified in their immediacy by embodiment as a lived phenomenon.

Let me close by noting that in 1903, C. S. Peirce (1903c [1931-58]: 8.186) reviewed a book by one C. A. Strong entitled Why the Mind Hasa Body. Peirce notes in the opening of his book review that the mind-body problem is a traditional one in philosophy. Indeed he says rather ironically, it is a problem "that justifies high hopes for the future of philosophy." But then he says what I would like to say by way of a closing comment: "Not that any real solution of the problem has been reached. Let us hope that such may some day appear; but at present, no peering into the future describes its features nor yields us any confidence out of what quarter of the horizon it shall first loom." Perhaps we may recover Peirce by suggesting that the phenomenological horizon for the mind-body problematic may be found in the thematic of semiosis which is human communication as both perception and expression which is embodied.


ANDERSON, Ralph E., and Irl CARTER.

1990. Human Behavior in the Social Environment: A Social Systems Approach. 4th ed. (New York: Aldine De Gruyter).


1963. Childhood and Society, 2nd ed. (New York: Norton).


1963. "Phenomenology and Metaphysics of the Human Body," International Philosophical Quarterly 111, no. 2 (May), 165-200.


1974. Jakobson ou le structuralisme phe'nome'nologique (Paris: Editions Seghers). Page references in the present article are to the English trans. by Catherine and Tarcisius Schelbert, Roman Jakobson's Approach to Language: Phenomenological Structuralism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976).


1960a. "Closing Statement: Linguistics and Poetics" in Style in Language, ed. Thomas A. Sebeok (Cambridge. MA: M.I.T. Press), 350-377.

c. 1960b. "Linguistics and Communication Theory" reprinted in Selected Writings; Vol. II.- Word and Language, 7 vols. (The Hague: Mouton, 1971)

1972. "Verbal Communication", The Scientific American 227.3: 73-80. An expanded French version is "L'agencement de la communication verbale", Essais de linguistique generate 11 (Paris: Minuit, 1973), 77-90).

LANIGAN, Richard L.

1972. Speaking and Semiology: Maurice Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenological Theory of Existential Communication. Approaches to Semiotics No. 22, ed. Thomas A. Sebeok (The Hague: Mouton). Page references are to the second edition (Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 1991).

1988. Phenomenology of Communication: Merleau-Ponty's Thematics in Communicology and Semiology (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press).

1992. The Human Science of Communicology: A Phenomenology of Discourse in Foucault and Merleau-Ponty (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press).

1995a. "Communicology", in The Encyclopedia of Phenomenology, general ed. Lester Embree (Norwell. NM: Kluwer Academic Publishers).

1995b. "Phenomenology," in The Encyclopedia of Rhetoric, general ed. Theresa Enos (New York: Garland Publishing Co.).


1993. Semiotics and Communication: Signs, Codes, Cultures (Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers).


1990. Universe of the Mind: A Semiotic Theory of Culture (Bloomington: Indiana University Press). This is an original publication of a translation from the Russian by Ann Shukman.


1945. Phnomnologie de la perception (Paris: Editions Gallimard). Page references in the present article are to the English trans. by Colin Smith, with corrections by Forrest Williams and David Guerri'ere (New Jersey: The Humanities Press, 1981). Where appropriate I have made my own translations from the French.

1960. Signes (Paris: Librairie Gallimard). Page references in the present article are to the English trans. by Richard C. McCleary, Signs (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1964).

PEIRCE, Charles Sanders.

1868. "Some Consequences of Four Incapacities," Journal of Speculative Philosophy, vol. 2, pp. 140-157. Reprinted in the Collected Papers 5.264-317.

1897. From an unidentified fragment reprinted in the Collected Papers 2.228.

1902. From a "Partial Synopsis of a Proposed Work in Logic" reprinted in the CollectedPapers 2.79-118.

1903a. From the "Lowell Lectures of 1903," Lecture 111, vol. 2, 3d Draught, following 349, reprinted in the CollectedPapers 1.521544.

1903b. "Lectures on Pragmaticism," Lecture V, reprinted in the Collected Papers 5.120-150.

1903c. Review of C. A. Strong's Why The Mind HasA Body (Macmillan, 1903, 355pp.), Widner IV, dated c. 1903 on the basis of the date of the book; reprinted in the CollectedPapers 8.186-187.

1931-58. Collected Papers. Vols. 1-6 ed. Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss; vols. 7-8 ed. Arthur W. Burks (Cambridge, NM: Harvard University Press). Reference by codex custom is made to volume and paragraph number(s).

RUESCH, Jiirgen.

1950. "Communication and Bodily Disease: A Study of Vasopastic Conditions," written with A. Rodney Prestwood. Page references are to the 1972 reprint edition, Semiotic Approaches to Human Relations, pages 614-634.

1972. Semiotic Approaches to Human Relations. Approaches to Semiotics No. 25, ed. Thomas A. Sebeok (The Hague: Mouton).

RUESCH, Jiirgen, and Gregory BATESON.

1951. Communication: The Social Matrix of Psychiatry (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1987). Page references are to this reprint edition.

SAPIR, Edward.

1931. "Communication" in Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences (New York: Macmillan), 78-81. Page references are to the reprint in Selected Writings.

1949. Selected Writings of Edward Sapir in Language, Culture and Personality (Berkeley: University of California Press), 104-9.

WILDEN, Anthony.

1987. The Rules Are No Game: The Strategy of Communication (New York:outledge & Kegan Paul).


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